Why I’m leaving UCSF; or thoughts on running an imaging center for those who might consider it

After a little over ten years running the Nikon Imaging Center at UCSF, I’ve decided to take a job in industry. On March 6th, I will start work at Zymergen. DeLaine Larsen will take over as director of the NIC. At Zymergen, I won’t be doing much, if any, microscopy. Instead, I’ll be learning a lot and working to help them with their strain optimization efforts. It’s bittersweet to be leaving – I’ve really enjoyed my time at UCSF and I love microscopy, but it’s time to move on and to try something new. Here, I want to say a few words about why I’ve decided to leave UCSF, with the goal of hopefully shedding some light on the challenges of running a core facility that might be of interest to someone considering this career path.

Why am I leaving UCSF? In many ways I’ve been very successful: the NIC is financially stable, widely used by the UCSF community, and highly regarded both inside and outside UCSF. In 2014, I was awarded an R01, enabling me to start my own research group. Despite that, I’m leaving UCSF because I don’t feel like I have a lot of room to grow here and because I think that if I don’t leave now it will be very hard to find a non-microscopy, non-academic job – I’ll be too old and too identified with microscopy.

Interestingly, one reason I’m not leaving UCSF is salary. While I’ll make about 10-15% more at Zymergen, it’s not wildly different than what I make now.

I’m moving away from microscopy because it’s not clear that there are that many career opportunities for someone who is a microscopy expert. I spent a good chunk of the last year talking to people in industry about industry opportunities for someone with my expertise, and I didn’t find many options. However, I did not want to leave the bay area, I didn’t want a job that required much travel, and so I never considered working at one of the microscopy companies. That said, I don’t think microscopy expertise is as valuable as say, expertise with antibody engineering, next-gen sequencing, or CRISPR.

For me to grow at UCSF would require either expanding my research group or for the NIC to keep adding new equipment and technologies. I don’t think either is likely, primarily due to funding constraints. A key issue is that I am on a 100% soft money position. That means that UCSF doesn’t provide any money to pay me – I have to raise the money necessary to pay my full salary plus the cost of all my benefits. I also don’t have a startup package – my lab (two postdocs plus 25% of my salary) is funded solely by my R01. I wanted to write a 2nd R01 last year, but I was never able to find the time to collect the preliminary data required for it – my postdocs were working on the funded R01, and I was too busy to do it myself (I’m not willing to spend 60+ hours/week in lab – I want to spend nights and weekends with my family). So growing my research group didn’t seem practical.

Growing the NIC is more likely; however UCSF doesn’t provide any support for the NIC either, aside from internal grants that we have applied for and been awarded from time to time. For the last ten years, Nikon has provided financial support to the NIC that, in recent years, covered about 30% of our operating expenses. They also supplied the majority of the microscopes we have in the NIC. However, Nikon is parting ways with UCSF, and so neither of these sources of support will continue. That means that our primary way to acquire new microscopes will be writing shared instrumentation grants, but this is a slow process (total time from writing the grant to receiving the equipment can be 2 years, assuming a resubmission of the grant is required). Furthermore, the shared instrumentation grant mechanism primarily supports the purchase of commercial off-the-shelf instrumentation, making it very hard to develop new cutting edge instrumentation this way.

Finally, the way we fund the NIC is through a recharge, where users of the imaging center pay for scope time. With the Nikon gift ending, 75% of my salary would be funded by this recharge money. Personally, I found funding myself off of recharge to be psychologically corrosive – I feel like I should account, financially, for every hour of my time. This really conflicts with my desire to be collegial. For example, is it right to spend my time (paid for by users of our microscopes) to teach a graduate course that only benefits a small number of students? I now charge researchers at UCSF for help with their own microscopes and for help with image analysis. Should I also bill a colleague who asks me to read a draft of their paper?

Lest this be perceived as a rant, let me say that I have really enjoyed my ten years at UCSF. I’ve learned a tremendous amount and have had a lot of fun doing it. The faculty have been tremendously supportive of me and I’ve always felt like a valued member of the community. That said, I think there are real problems with soft money positions, and I would advise anyone taking a 100% soft money position to think hard about whether it is a good move. Also, if you want to specialize in being a microscopist, you may want to consider whether it will provide you with the career opportunities you may want later.

30 thoughts on “Why I’m leaving UCSF; or thoughts on running an imaging center for those who might consider it

  1. Thank you for your candor Kurt! It’s never easy to reconcile the many facets of one’s career and life trajectory. I just wanted to say that all of the scientists at UCSF that have used NIC resources are deeply indebted to you and your team.

    Good luck!

  2. Hi Kurt,

    That was a really nice posting and I would also like to say that I am grateful for the work you did at UCSF’s NIC.

    Good Luck at Zymergen!

  3. Good luck, Kurt! It sounds like it was a tough situation. I will always be grateful for the help you gave me with ChlamyTIRF and all the advice you provided (on microscopes and beyond) during my time at UCSF. I hope you keep making that awesome Burning Man art.

  4. Thanks for all your hard work at UCSF and for sharing your reasoning here. To those of us in training, it’s really useful to hear perspectives from those a bit further up the mountain, who can see a bit further out.

    The NIC has been a really essential resource for many members of my lab. It’s really hard to overstate the magnitude of well functioning cores run by experts as a force multiplier in our research. You and DeLaine both provide insight that would take a good deal of trial-mostly-error to derive on our own.

    Best of luck at Zymergen — look forward to reading anything you’re able to write about your new work!

  5. Dear Kurt

    I really enjoyed reading your blog and I am sorry to see you leaving. It is striking that in spite of the place that fluorescence imaging has taken in modern biology, there is not more institutional support for devoted microscopy expert like you. It reflects the perverse incentives created by the current research system, which favours direct and tangible research output (churned out by postdoc and graduate students) at the detriment of the invisible but invaluable support provided by research platform.

  6. Dear Kurt,

    I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your blog. It’s become a morning ritual for me to visit your page, checking for updates and getting excited whenever there are paper roundups + news in the field. Really sad to see you go (perhaps the blog will still survive in some form?) but I guess everyone moves on in life and it sounds like you found a better opportunity to realize your goals & passion while maintaining a healthy balance of family time.

    Wishing you the best of luck in your new adventures!

  7. Dear Kurt,

    thank you for sharing your thoughts. We’ve worked together a few sessions at mission bay and i’m still using you as an example of how platforms should be run…

    anyway, good luck at Zymergen and let us know how it works out

    greetings from Paris

  8. Thanks so much for everything you did for us, Kurt, despite the endless financial struggles. I really appreciate the incredible support you’ve provided my lab members over the years, and I completely understand why you want to move on. Good luck in the new position!

  9. Congratulations and best of luck Kurt!
    I am sure many will miss you at UCSF but I applaud your bold move and I have no doubt you will be very successful.
    I am still very grateful for the great expertise, patience and support you provided me when I was using the core as a researcher. Also, as an ex-core manager and a microscopy specialist, your insights on career opportunities and the issues with soft money positions are hitting close to home here…

  10. congratulations Kurt, certainly a good decision to try something new and interesting. I guess research institutions will have to make up their minds if they want to keep their top staff. Good luck at the new job.

  11. I have done transition to industry after being in academia for over 15 years. I was in a secure position and productive. Felt the same way as you though. It was time to learn something new, completely new. It will be hard first. Your brain will rewire. Good luck and enjoy life.

    I will miss your blog 🙁

  12. Hi, Kurt – Bummed you are moving on from the NIC, but understand the reasons all too well. Thank you for detailing them in your post. It is definitely UCSF’s loss. Also, all of our losses if you give up your blog (non-subtle hint that you could keep doing it.. ;). Best of luck in your new adventures and hope to see you around some time.

  13. Kurt — I’ve really enjoyed the blog. I’ll be very sad when I don’t see any updates anymore soon, but I am glad that you are moving on to bigger and better things.

  14. Kurt, good luck in the future endeavours.

    The world of microscopy will miss you dearly, you have done a lot for us all, and have become legendary to many generations of students and researchers.

    Maybe you will have time to build more fire art?

    • Thanks Ethan! I have tried to keep this post neutral, but I will say that I find the disconnect between comments such as yours and the support I get from the university very frustrating. Being legendary and $3 will get you a cup of coffee.

      As for fire art, I wish! I don’t think I’ll have time in the near future with two kids. Although I do debate the right age to bring them to Burning Man.

  15. Kurt!

    Good luck and congratulations!

    I have always looked up to you for the way you have so freely dessiminated your vast and useful microscopy knowledge.

    You will be missed.

  16. As a microscopist who recently started a job where I also have to raise most of my salary, this really resonated. I haven’t really explored the industry options but do get the feeling that the skill set we have doesn’t translate very well outside academia (unless you want to live in Germany or Japan). I’ve always had great respect for the NIC and have pointed to it countless times since I left UCSF as a shining example of how awesome and useful a core facility could be. I hope you are proud of what you created.

    In the words of DFW, “I wish you more than luck!”

  17. Dear Kurt:

    Thank you for the wonderful job you’ve done at the Center. You’ve enabled a number of my students to complete their Theses. Your advice was highly valuable- When I firts came to UCSF I maintained our own microscopy core but advances in the complexity, cost of the instrumentation, complexity and difficulty for a PI whose core interest was not micrscopy to stay up to date on technical developments. I’m sorry that there is not a viable way for sceitnists like your self to have a long term career at UCSF. You greatly enriched the resarch community and I wish you the best of success in your new career.

  18. Good luck, Kurt! I was an early user of the imaging center (while a postdoc in John Rubenstein’s lab around 2005), and it was extremely valuable resource that tackled our microscopy needs. I enjoyed interacting with you, and was grateful for your patience and advice!
    I also recently transitioned from academia to industry. I spend way too much of my time seeking money in an exceedingly difficult funding environment, and not enough time doing the science that I loved. I am sure you’ll thrive at Zymergen! Best of luck in your new endeavors!

  19. Congrats on your exciting new position, Kurt, and thank you for your 10 years of wonderful contributions to the microscopy community. I’ll miss your tweets and blog posts on all matters microscopic, but your decision to do something different is very much in the same style — well informed and well reasoned and thus obviously correct. Best of luck in your new career!

  20. Just got a chance to read this Kurt, congratulations on the transition – I predict that it will be challenging at first but you will be fairly successful once you learn the industry framework. I transitioned from working in the CAT doing instrumentation and systems biology and every ounce of experience from my PhD and postdoc propelled me ahead in (aerospace) industry once I learned how to think big. You probably are underselling yourself by framing yourself as a microscopist, you know and will be effective in roles you have never imagined, particularly at the interface of optics and biomedical engineering. As for UCSF’s and academia at large, it is much of a caste system – it blows my mind that, after what we have been through, PIs are OK knowing some of their colleagues are on soft money. I think it is totally OK to fund yourself to the salary level of a faculty (to account for the fact that you are on soft money) and make them work writing grants to pay you. That I would call collegiality.

  21. Dear Kurt,

    good luck with your new position, I wish you that this turns out to be the right decision for you.

    As for microscopy in general, your move is a loss that will hurt. I will miss your blog!

    Understandable that you decided to move, hardly understandable that UCSF is not willing to provide a permanently funded position for such an important infrastructure. It should not be so difficult to understand that experience is important in cores, and that good people will hardly decide to stay if they don’t have a certain job security, especially if they have family.

    Good luck also for your successor. I almost feel sorry for him when I look at the shoes he has to fill.

  22. Kurt,
    Thank you so much for everything you have done for us over the past years. I completely understand your reasons for moving on. I’ll miss you knowledge and collegiality. All the best in your new job.

  23. Hi Kurt,
    I now understand your melancholy during our discussion late last year about life-science balance.

    You’ll be sorely missed- the news even hit here in Australia.

    Good luck with your transition.
    All the best,
    Sam

  24. Yeah, hey, I know…Random comment from some dude you knew in high school, but I thought it was really cool to see colleagues thanking you for being so forthright with the reasons behind your decision. Mighty nice to see them have understanding and support the logic behind it, even as they realize they’ll miss you and your contribution.

    Best of luck in the new gig.

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